Every night before I go to bed I look at my two boys in their shared bedroom: twin beds with matching airplane sheets. My youngest is always splayed on his stomach across his mattress, a leg hanging off one side, arm at another. I can’t marvel about the delicate beauty of his eyelashes on his cheek, because his head is obscured by pillows, stuffed animals, and baby dolls. Sometimes I think he’s missing, kidnapped—though I know the improbability of this—my mind always goes to the worst places first. For the last three months, he has slept beneath a rainbow flag, using it instead of a sheet. I’m glad he hasn’t descended into the depths of puberty yet, as I don’t know how to wash it.
My oldest child is harder to lose—he sleeps in a predictable manner—head on pillow—feet where feet normally go—so what startles me is how big he has grown. His forearms are nearly as thick as my own—soon we will be wearing the same size shoes. Already I can borrow his hoodies when it gets cold at the baseball field. His crew cut never gets mussed at night, he doesn’t yet shave—in sleep the traces of the boy he’s always been still remain. The curve of his freckled cheek in the nightlight’s glow. The stuffed bear from his one hospital stay beside him.
The world can be a hard place on gentle boys, yet I want my boys to remain gentle. People told me, “you need to toughen them up,” but I always answered, “the world will try to break them soon enough. They don’t need their mother to do it for them.”
The world hasn’t tried to break them yet, but I know edges of their safe world are crumbling as they get older and go farther into the world without me. They are too big for their mother to run onto the playground, or ball field, or hockey rink, and defend them. There will be words that make them bleed. No one escapes childhood unscathed.
We know there likely will be at least one moment of physical danger that they may or may not evade. A shove. A punch. A horde of children intent on inflicting pain. I hope my boys learn the snappy comeback, find an alternative exit.
My youngest pulls his pride hat over his long hair. My eldest slips into his White Sox hoodie. Today there is an assembly about school shooters. About being kind as a form of self-defense. I tell them it is good to be kind. I tell them some shooters were bullied and one friend reaching out could make the difference. I also tell them not to treat the misfits with suspicion. That being an introvert doesn’t make you a threat. I tell them some kids are cruel and no amount of niceness will help them. That if it all goes terribly wrong it’s not their fault.
I send them off to school and wait for them to come home.
Copyright © 2020 Lara Lillibridge
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